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IJP2 Article Part 3: Understand the specific concerns of conservatives

A major theme in the Framing Challenge at the 2008 NCDD conference was the need to understand the specific concerns of conservatives.

menatconf_200pxThe public engagement field and related fields struggle with the fact that many more progressives than conservatives are attracted to this work. The vast majority of practitioners are politically progressive, and it is typically more challenging to recruit people with more traditional or conservative views to participate in dialogue and deliberation programs.

During the conservative panel sub-plenary on the second day of the conference, panelists Joseph McCormick, Grover Norquist, Michael Ostrolenk and Pete Peterson mentioned several words that can turn conservative communities away from public engagement: grassroots, organizing (“I don’t want anyone to organize me”), consciousness and enlightenment (“something you have and I don’t?”).

In their workshop, Attracting Conservative Citizens to Dialogue Events: Liberal-Conservative Campus Dialogue & Mormon-Evangelical Interfaith Initiatives, Jacob Hess and Reverend Greg Johnson explained some of the sources of wariness of dialogue by many social conservatives. One is the fear of being asked to give up truth or absolutes, as dialogue can seem to assume that all truth is relative.

One participant wrote this reflection about Hess and Johnson’s powerful session:

“I had a big, big revelation [during your session]. At 64, I have thought my whole life that to be open-minded, all accepting, non-judgmental toward different people, beliefs, and values was an absolute good thing. How could it be bad to be tolerant, embracing, accepting all beliefs as valid? Wouldn’t everyone appreciate that attitude, since it includes everyone? What I heard from you is that having an absolute truth is fundamentally, critically important to you. It is the most important thing. It may be easier for you to deal with each other, or with others who have conflicting versions of the truth, than to do deal with someone like me who doesn’t seem to advocate any particular truth, but sees it all as relative.”

Others shared similar realizations after this workshop. Often, dialogue is said to bring people together whose viewpoints and experiences contribute important “pieces of the puzzle” for making progress on issues like racial inequity, education reform, and youth violence. But framing dialogue in relativist terms may backfire for some audiences. According to Hess and Johnson, it may be important to reassure conservatives that “truth Capital T is still welcome” – as long as they also agree to be open to learning more.

Another concern brought up in Hess and Johnson’s workshop is the fear of a hidden [liberal] agenda. Pete Peterson confirmed this on the conservatives panel, suggesting people with more traditional views might respond better when dialogue is framed as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. When dialogue is seen as a “tool,” the question arises from all sides “What is the hidden agenda? To change my mind so I agree with you? To challenge my beliefs or values?”

Peterson’s comment echoed another concern Hess and Johnson explored in their session: the fear of being changed. Dialogue can be seen by people with deep-rooted belief systems as something that might require them to compromise their beliefs somehow. Consider how a conservative Christian might feel when asked to participate in a dialogue on gay marriage aimed at “finding common ground” or moving forward in ways that “work for all” among people with disparate viewpoints. Panelist Grover Norquist, Founder of Americans for Tax Reform, likewise pointed out latent fear among some towards events seeking common ground.

There are many theories as to why progressives have shown more interest than conservatives in public engagement work, but the fact remains that the outcomes of public engagement projects cannot be easily categorized as serving left-wing or right-wing agendas. Participants sometimes recommend tax increases or new government programs to address the issue at hand; other times they call for business or nonprofit groups or take over tasks that had been the responsibility of government. Often, they call for citizens to take more direct responsibility for solving community problems.

Note from Sandy:

This is my third blog post featuring content of an article published in the latest edition of the International Journal of Public Participation (IJP2), titled Taking our Work to the Next Level: Addressing Challenges Facing the Dialogue and Deliberation Community.  The article outlines our learnings in two of the five challenges we focused on at the 2008 NCDD conference in Austin:  The “Framing Challenge” (How can we talk about and present D&D work in ways that are accessible to a broader audience?) and the “Systems Challenge” (How can we make D&D values and practices integral to government, schools, and other systems?).  You can download the full article from the IJP2 site.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Conservatives resent being forced to do things. I can relate to that. I really can't justify forcing people to pay taxes, even though the value of money is maintained by the threat of force behind the collection of taxes. It would be nice to find non-coercive ways to meet the needs of human beings, and rather than assuming it's my duty to force people to pay for other people's health care, I hold the possibility in mind that there might be some other way.

    We need to be more aware that when we call upon government to meet people's needs, there is an underlying layer of implied threat. One idea I've been floating is an "opt-out" menu, so that people who don't want to pay for abortions don't have to, and the same with the death penalty, nuclear weapons and other morally ambiguous projects.

    Freedom may be a fundamental value both sides can share. Gay marriage, which for most progressives is a freedom issue, might be better framed in terms of taxation, the fact that gay couples are barred from filing jointly and lose a lot of money because of it.

  2. John Backman says:

    I'm so glad to see that this thread came up during the conference. It strikes me that if we are missing any perspective at the dialogue table–conservative, progressive, moderate, whatever–our dialogues aren't all they could be.

    I especially appreciate Pete Peterson's comments. For the past three years, I (as a moderate-to-progressive) have attempted to start conversations with conservative Christians at the annual convention of our Episcopal diocese. The issues of gay marriage and ordination have riven the church in recent years, making these conversations a challenge. So my goals are modest at best: simply for us to enjoy each other and, in the process, learn to see the other as human being first, adversary second. Pete's comment about dialogue as an end in itself inspires me to think that maybe such modest goals are worthwhile.

  3. Bill Roper says:

    Great points regarding reaching conservatives. We at the Orton Family Foundation face the same challenges and opportunities. The opportunity is to help conservatives know that many of the underlying principles of Deliberative Democracy can be found in Thomas Jefferson's writings and that in some ways the whole DD thing is a return to their roots! So much of it is language and spending the time to understand that we are actually moving in the same directions. Bravo for this piece and the underlying discussion at the conference.

  4. Pete Peterson emailed me a little while ago, clarifying his "end in itself" comment:

    Thanks forr furthering this discussion, Sandy. Just to be clear, my hope is not simply that dialogue is an "end in itself" – I do want it to lead to something. Only that its outcome not be predisposed. I think you make this point in your very good essay, but just wanted to be clear.

  5. Jeff Conklin shared this on the NCDD listserv today:

    A reinforcing view on this issue is presented in this TED talk by Jonathan Haidt http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jonathan_haidt

    "Psychologist Jonathan Haidt studies the five moral values that form the basis of our political choices, whether we're left, right or center."

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